Cycle of Unemployment Hurts Black Men
Julian Robinson has a simple demand and a simple need.
It is a warm Louisiana day and Robinson, 43, leans against the brick wall of his apartment complex to seek shelter from the sun. He wears a tidy mustache, and a shaved head. He is articulate and animated and has a message for the city of New Orleans.
“Give us an opportunity, give us a chance,” he said. “Let us show we can be productive citizens and really work hard to provide for our families.”
With over half of working age black men experiencing unemployment, frustration and desperation have become an all too common story. They face an economy where the majority of available jobs are temporary and pay wages too low to support their families. Many become discouraged and drop out of the labor force all together turning to crime. Despite these hurdles, a few like Robinson still have hope.
“I’ve been looking for employment for quite some time,” said Robinson. “I pray and continually look for work with hopes of obtaining it, I just strive. That’s all I can do. I never give up.”
According to a Loyola University report, 52 percent of African American men in New Orleans are unemployed. As a result, 27 percent of black men live in poverty compared to only 15 percent of white men. Robinson is one of these men, searching without success for a steady job for nearly three years. He knows that his past has been a barrier to settling into a good career.
“I made some bad choices, but everyone deserves a second chance,” said Robinson. “I’m endeavoring to make up for some of my mistakes by being a productive citizen.”
At 17, Robinson dropped out of high school due to what he calls a mishap with the law. Over his adult life he spent nine years in and out of the justice system. He eventually grew tired of this pattern and sought to change the course of his life.
Finding work with an incarceration record has proven to be difficult for Robinson. Many private sector jobs will not hire workers with a record, and with New Orleans having the highest incarceration rate in the country, this is a common problem for job seekers.
Robinson has been limited to construction and restaurant jobs which last only a few months at a time before being laid off. Unable to qualify for other better paying jobs, he finds work through a temp agency, but he struggles to meet basic needs with an hourly minimum wage of $8.01. He says many men including himself cannot support their families with those wages. He struggles to afford the basics.
“Family (has) got to eat. It takes soap powder to wash clothes, it takes pots to cook in,” said Robinson.
He explains this is why he and so many men have turned to a life of crime. When faced with the need to support your family, crime feels like the only option.
“They would rather hustle,” said Robinson. “They would rather take the jailhouse chance as opposed to working for these small amount of wages.”
Robinson’s story is an example of the complexity behind this jobs crisis, a crisis that has been brewing in New Orleans since the 1980’s when the oil industry busted and infrastructures shifted and changed.
According to the Loyola report, the areas hardest hit were construction, manufacturing, natural resources, mining, transportation and wholesale trade. Those industries lost a combined 54,800 jobs between 1980 and 2004. Black men were employed in those industries at a higher rate, and therefore, were more greatly effected. Ten years later they have experienced very little economic recovery.
Dr. Petrice Sams-Abiodun, exucutive director of the Lindy Boggs Center was one of the co-writers and researches of the report. She is a community researcher who monitors the effect men have on their neighborhoods and on the greater New Orleans community.
“Even post Katrina, when there were all these economic opportunities for residents to take advantage of jobs in the recovery and rebuilding of NOLA, many of our men, our black men, because of the barriers and challenges that they have could not access those opportunities,” said Sams-Abiodun.
According to Sams-Abioudun, those barriers and challenges include low wages, insufficient education, lack of training, incarceration and a culture of negativity.
“This is a population that has been demonized,” said Sams-Abiodun. “When we look at the media and the images we see of black men it’s always very negative. I think that what this data point did, the 52%, it really showed people or made people rethink the importance of this population.”
Stand with Dignity has been working to get the people of New Orleans to re-think the importance of the African American community since 2007. They are a subgroup of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. Working at the grassroots level, they are committed to organizing men like Robinson from the community to get their opinions and needs heard by the city.
“The people I know are struggling so bad that they are losing hope,” said Alfred Marshall an organizer for Stand. “Most of them are frustrated to the point, they say ‘hell they aren’t going to do anything for us’.”
Marhsall says he does not want the men in his community to give up. So he is in the neighborhood daily, reaching out to the people, listening to their concerns and finding ways to unite their efforts in action. He works especially close with black construction workers.
Both he and lead organizer for Stand, Colette Tippy explain that as a group, Stand is calling for the city to encourage employers to offer better jobs, on the job training and increased wages.
“If you combine a good starting wage with a good career ladder that gets you to $20 or $30 an hour, it really incentivizes workers to want that job and be able to seek those jobs,” said Tippy.
According the to Loyola University report, the median earning of African American men who are working year round has fallen eleven percent to $31,018, while white men have seen their earnings rise nine percent to $60,000. Futhermore, many are working at minimum wage which amounts to $15,080 annually. The report states that these low and falling wages are likely to contribute to discouragment and an increasing number of men dropping out of the labor force all together.
However, not all men are New Orleans find themselves discouraged. Charles “Darchie” Pettis, is a self proclaimed persitant man with high goals.
Pettis is a five time convicted felon. His first arrest was at 18 and he is now 47. He only has one more chance at getting things right. Another arrest means prison for life.
In an effort to change the course of his life, he joined a carpenters union and became an apprentice. He is 85 percent complete with his training and in one years time he will be a journeyman. Ultimately his goal is to become a master carpenter and then a contractor, employing men in his community.
While Pettis’ story is not the norm, he wants to succeed to inspire others and change the future of New Orleans.
"I want to show the brothers that you can come out the situation in life I was living and be successful at what you do," said Pettis. "That's what my drive is. I'm doing it for me and I also want to do it for my community, for my race of people."